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Saturday, July 13, 2024

The tactical strikes which have injected new life into Asia’s GT scene

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Huge grids of GT3 equipment could also be nothing out of the strange in Europe, however the sight of 36 vehicles assembling for the GT World Problem Asia spherical at Fuji in June marked an necessary achievement for a championship that was pressured into hibernation for 2 seasons in the course of the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With cross-border journey in Asia made unimaginable, GT Asia floor to a halt in 2020-21 earlier than relaunching final yr with a brand new ‘Japan Cup’ ingredient. The concept was easy: 4 of that yr’s initially-planned six races have been held in Japan, and groups may choose to enter these races and have their very own classification.

The choice to anchor the SRO-run collection’ relaunch in Japan was made in late 2021, when nations like China and Thailand have been nonetheless within the grip of lockdown. Sepang would maintain the 2022 season opener earlier than the primary of 4 occasions in Japan and a season finale in Mandalika in Indonesia, which was in the end cancelled. And, whereas solely eight GT3 vehicles took to the observe for the curtain-raiser, it was an necessary first step to show to wavering groups that the collection was again in enterprise.

“We needed to go someplace the place there are purchasers, vehicles and race tracks, and Japan was that place,” explains GT Asia common supervisor Benjamin Franassovici. “Once we got here to Fuji in 2017, ‘18 and ‘19, we all the time had a number of additional vehicles there, so we knew there was curiosity.

“We gambled on Malaysia opening up in time, and it opened up three, 4 weeks earlier than. We knew Sepang wouldn’t look good with eight vehicles. However I knew I had 20 vehicles dedicated for Fuji [the first of the four planned Japan Cup races], and it’s important to put vehicles on observe to persuade people who it’s actually occurring.”

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Eight GT3s at Sepang turned 16 at Suzuka, with every of the remaining rounds attracting 16-17 vehicles. That exponential development continued into this yr, with a bumper discipline of 36 vehicles at Fuji, 33 at Suzuka and 31 at Motegi final month, with a small contingent of GT4 vehicles boosting general grid numbers additional.

This yr’s entry checklist options names that might be instantly recognisable to followers of European GT racing, with Dennis Olsen, Alessio Picariello, Matteo Cairoli, Alvaro Parente, Maximilian Gotz and Luca Stolz all in motion final outing at Motegi. Rising Australian star Broc Feeney was additionally current in a Triple Eight-run Mercedes.

Prime worldwide GT names together with Dennis Olsen, pictured with Lu Wei on the Motegi podium, convey a brand new dimension to the collection

Picture by: SRO

“We confirmed individuals we may ship, that the language barrier wouldn’t be a difficulty for the Japanese groups,” says Franassovici. “We’ve got the race director radio in Japanese and English, in addition to the drivers’ briefing. This yr we created a separate radio feed in Japanese, and we’ve employed extra assistants and translators. We attempt to make issues as pleasant as doable, and it appears to be working.”

Franassovici cites two causes for the increase in grid numbers this yr: “First, China reopened in a single day final yr, and inside per week I had Chinese language groups calling me about coming again. Secondly, we’ve extra Japan Cup vehicles. It was necessary that [Takeshi] Kimura and CarGuy received the title final yr, and D’station received races, to see that they might problem the worldwide groups.”

Whereas anchoring the collection’ relaunch in Japan has undoubtedly been a hit, it has additionally supplied a quandary. The collection has already needed to flip down vehicles this yr, capping the full-season entry at 37 (together with GT4 machines) because of area limitations at sure tracks. And with extra groups displaying curiosity for 2024, the collection may quickly discover itself with way more vehicles than it has accessible grid spots.

“The choice is to maintain the grid capped at 36 or 37 vehicles and switch extra individuals away. However I’m optimistic that there’s sufficient curiosity [for two grids]” Benjamin Franassovici

That’s why the SRO is now contemplating whether or not the Japan Cup may very well be break up off from GT Asia to develop into its personal pukka collection. A standalone race can be held subsequent season at Sugo and, relying on suggestions from the groups, the choice of fully splitting GT Asia and Japan Cup is on the desk.

“We’re figuring out if that’s possible, whether or not we could have the numbers for each championships,” says Franassovici. “We wish to look good; the numbers need to be proper. We even have to purchase additional observe time, which prices a fortune at Fuji and Suzuka.

“The choice is to maintain the grid capped at 36 or 37 vehicles and switch extra individuals away. However I’m optimistic that there’s sufficient curiosity [for two grids]. We’ve got curiosity from different groups from China and Australia.”

House limitations may very well be eased considerably by plans to spin off the GT4 class into its personal collection, with a trial race deliberate for this month’s Japan Cup finale at Okayama.

“It’s an opportunity to provide GT4s a lift and provides small groups a style of the collection in a less complicated setting, with out GT3s,” says Franassovici. “It’s about proving there’s a spot for GT4 vehicles in Japan. Even when we solely have eight vehicles, I wouldn’t be shocked if we get 15 or 16 vehicles subsequent yr.”

Franassovici says the success of Japanese squads such as D'station at Okayama last year against international teams was important for the series' growth

Franassovici says the success of Japanese squads corresponding to D’station at Okayama final yr towards worldwide groups was necessary for the collection’ development

Picture by: SRO

The opposite consideration is GT Asia’s need to get again to a extra ‘regular’ schedule with extra races in different Asian nations. For instance, Shanghai will maintain the season finale in 2024 now that China has reopened to the world. As Franassovici is eager to underline: “We’re not a Japanese championship, we’re simply visitors right here.”

For 2024, half of the six GT Asia rounds (excluding the standalone Sugo occasion) can be held in Japan, and the plan is to return to only two journeys for the 2025 season, as was the case pre-COVID. However two rounds wouldn’t be sufficient to maintain the Japan Cup as a viable competitors with out including standalone races.

Franassovici is adamant that GT Asia has little interest in stealing consideration from Japan’s established Tremendous GT and Tremendous Taikyu collection. There isn’t a all-Professional class in GT Asia, and there are not any plans for one: “I’m certain Stephane [Ratel] would like to have a Professional class right here, however it could not be sustainable. However we’ve some nice Execs right here, manufacturing facility drivers, and a few good Ams. The brand new wave of Chinese language drivers are actually critical and lots of of them are fast.

“We even have a format that does not exist wherever else in Japan. We don’t wish to problem Tremendous GT, and we wouldn’t be capable to. Likewise Tremendous Taikyu, they’re multi-class endurance racing, we’re dash racing. We slot in very properly.”

That stated, there are clearly some Professional-Am groups utilizing GT3 vehicles which might be perennially caught in the back of the sector in Tremendous GT’s decrease GT300 class that might match extra naturally within the SRO setting. The brand new partnership with the Vehicle Membership de l’Ouest to co-run the Asian Le Mans Collection may additionally supply a pathway to the Le Mans 24 Hours, which might solely improve GT Asia’s attractiveness.

There are some early indicators that the followers are taking discover of Japanese motorsport’s new child on the block. The Suzuka spherical attracted 15,000 spectators throughout two days, which is greater than Tremendous Taikyu welcomed on the similar venue this yr. “We’ve got a higher variety of worldwide drivers in comparison with Tremendous GT, which has gone down very nicely with the followers,” factors out Franassovici.

Whether or not or not it stays a part of GT Asia, the Japan Cup has actually added a much-needed splash of worldwide color to the nation’s motorsport panorama, and has gained sufficient momentum to recommend it will likely be a fixture for a lot of seasons to come back. Let’s simply hope that there isn’t one other pandemic any time quickly…

The 2023 campaign started in Buriram, and plans are for the championship to be less reliant on Japanese venues in future

The 2023 marketing campaign began in Buriram, and plans are for the championship to be much less reliant on Japanese venues in future

Picture by: SRO



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